Supermarket `real bread' ruins the small bakers

Food/ cut-throat competition
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THE SMELL of fresh bread, once on every British high street, is now more common in the supermarket as scores of local bakeries - unable to compete with mass-produced loaves - close each month.

There are now only 3,500 family bakeries left in Britain. In the past five years, 1,500 have closed. Fifty years ago, small bakeries produced 83 per cent of British bread. Today, with the advent of the sliced loaf and the supermarket bakery, they sell only 8 per cent.

Over the past 10 years, supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury and Safeway have sought to reproduce the ambience of the high-street bakery to attract customers. Most loaves are baked overnight and the assistants wear bakers' hats and aprons. The choice of bread is wider than in a local bakery, ranging from ordinary white sliced loaves to Italian ciabatta.

The National Association of Master Bakers is alarmed by the speed of closures. It fears that supermarkets may be trying to drive bakeries out of business and has asked the Office of Fair Trading to intervene.

"Bakers haven't been able to keep up with competition," said Mary Rance, Director of the NAMB. "They have tried vigorously, but supermarkets have been selling bread below its market price as a loss leader for some years. The family bakeries are really fighting against very adverse trading conditions. They are closing every day."

But the OFT, although it said it sympathised with the small bakeries' plight, concluded that supermarkets were not trying to drive them out of the market and refused to act.

Gareth Humphries, a baker in Cardiff who with his sisters runs a bakery dating from the 19th century, has seen four of his fellow bakers close since Christmas as superstores move in.

He begins baking bread at midnight, producing 200 loaves and thousands of rolls a day, but also spends much of his time making sandwiches to break even.

He has written to John Major, the Prime Minister, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Welsh Office Minister Gwilym Jones asking for intervention, but received no help. The Welsh Office minister failed to reply.

"Its become very hard for bakers to make a living," he said. "We can't compete with the supermarkets, specially since they are open on Sunday now. They sell bread at less than it costs us to produce."

Tesco, which produces a sliced white loaf at 19p - less than it costs the average baker to buy a loaf's ingredients - said: "A lot of our supermarkets do have in-house bakeries because our customers want that. The bread is cheaper and just as good in terms of quality. It is all baked on the premises."

The "bakeries" typically stand beside racks of sliced, discounted bread, which dominates the market.

Bakers' organisations say that the low prices set by supermarkets are devaluing bread and convincing consumers that local bakers charge too much.

Local bakeries now charge as much as 300 per cent more than the supermarkets for a loaf and this is driving custom away.

But community groups and Age Concern, the charity representing the elderly, say that the closure of bakeries is causing undue hardship to pensioners, 91 per cent of whom do not have access to a car. Many who cannot get to a supermarket have to buy sliced bread.

"If the bakeries are closing then older people really are stuck," an Age Concern spokesman said. "They can't afford taxis - they really are isolated. Going to the bakery is a social thing. Some of them are very lonely and they like to chat to the baker in a way you can't in supermarkets.

"A lot were brought up with bakeries," the spokesman added. "They like fresh loaves. They feel everything is running away from them. They feel very lost in supermarkets."